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The Livable Communities myth 

Is Bill Nojay to blame?

Don't know much about the Livable Communities Initiative? Bet you know even less than you think.

            You can stop looking for that pot of gold at the end of the LCI rainbow. Not only is there no gold. There's no rainbow, either.

            "Bill Nojay [former Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority chairman] basically sold people a bill of goods," says DeWain Feller, chair of the Rochester Rail Transit Committee. "He's made all these promises, and I think other people have just accepted what he has said without looking into it."

            Nojay declined to comment on this story.

            LCI was first escorted onto the scene by Maggie Brooks during the county executive race. On the stump, Brooks pushed integrating a planned bus station with a Performing Arts Center and MCC campus.

            "I've been talking about aggressively pursuing as a city and a county Livable Communit[ies] Initiative dollars," Brooks said during a WXXI "Voice of the Voter" debate in October. "These are federal transportation dollars that would allow us to build a transit center and then integrate a Performing Arts Center, possibly an advanced tech center. That would be an opportunity to get a number of projects done by leveraging federal transportation dollars."

            But it turns out there are no Livable Communities dollars.

            "The long and short of it is, it is an initiative, not a funding source," says Jim Goveia, a spokesman for the Federal Transportation Administration. "There's no real funding attached to it."

The county executive's race, says Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, was run on the fictional LCI money.

            "There were two great lies perpetrated here," she says. "One was that the Livable Communities would build this. Second, that you could build anything you wanted within 1,500 feet. I don't know why anybody in the world would have ever bought that one, because if that were true, every community in the United States would be doing it.

            "It was all over the campaign," she adds. "I must have heard 'Livable Communities' every half day."

            Trying to tell people the truth about LCI has been like shouting into the wind, Slaughter says.

            "I made that point about 100 times, that there was no money in Livable Communities," she says. "I made it to the editorial board of the D&C, I did it in articles to the newspaper, I did it in speeches... Everywhere I went I said, 'This is not true.'"

LCI is a federal policy that encourages the use of transit dollars to promote integrated economic development. Yawn. Did ya get that?

            What that means is money already on hand can be used in very selective ways on the Renaissance Square project. There is no new money coming this way because of Livable Communities.

            About $50 million in transportation dollars has been secured for the $58 million bus station. The bulk of the money --- $30 million --- came through the Genesee Transportation Council and the rest through Congressional appropriations. Under LCI, that money can be used on the station and parts of the Performing Arts Center.

            "The MCC center wouldn't be covered at all. It can't get any federal transit funds," says a spokeswoman for Slaughter. "The language is basically saying if it's functionally or physically connected [transit money can be used]."

            Renaissance Square will take up the better part of the block of Main Street between Clinton and St. Paul. Buying the property, demolishing buildings, environmental cleanup, and other associated costs are going to cost millions upon millions of dollars, project proponents say. Using FTA funds, they say, will cut millions off the cost of building the Performing Arts Center, because the center will use the same space.

            None of the three projects, they say, could be built independently because of the costs.

Transit funds can also be used for landscaping, sidewalks, and the shell of the bus terminal.

            "They can't build the walls of the Performing Arts Center, but they can build the ceiling of the bus terminal, which would be the floor of the Performing Arts Center. That's allowable," the Slaughter spokeswoman says. "Any of the transit money could be used for [those] connectors. [Things that are] functionally and physically connected."

            Elevators and escalators to and from the transit center would also be covered, "as long as it's connected," she says.

            "The big thing they can use it for is the planning portion: architectural designs, engineering plans. That's a big one," she says. "But nothing of the regular bricks-and-mortar construction of the Performing Arts Center."

            Transit funds cannot be used to design the MCC center, either, because of the aforementioned language that restricts the funds to projects functionally or physically connected, she says.

            Livable Communities has been used in other cities. In Orlando, Florida, for example, a park and play center was developed at one of the city's municipal parking garages. The project included a child care center, covered walkways connecting to a performing arts center, and city-funded free shuttle bus service to downtown employment centers. The FTA funded land costs for the child care center and 80 percent of the parking garage costs.

            Using federal money means that the feds are full partners in the project. They approve the plans in advance, oversee the project while it's going on, and audit it after it's done.

So who is responsible for perpetuating the Livable Communities myth? All signs, Slaughter says, point to former RGRTA chairman Bill Nojay and Mark Aesch, executive director of the Renaissance Square Development Corporation.

            Aesch did not return calls for comment.

            "It's being sold as something we know can happen and there's this huge bucket of money just waiting to be poured into Rochester," Feller says. "I think that's oversold by the people proposing the bus terminal."

            Rochester may be locking itself into a project, Feller adds, "without really doing the homework as to some of the basic premises it's founded on, which is the idea that we can leverage this transit center to get funding for the other two projects."

            "It's a faulty premise to build that project on," he says.

            Slaughter has asked legal counsel for the US Department of Transportation to put in writing exactly what transit money can be used for.

            Slaughter isn't sure why she couldn't convince people of the truth about LCI earlier.

            "I know a lot of people believe it's better to build something than nothing," she says. "I think it's better to do it right because it's going to be there for 30, 40 years.

            "They would rather look at me as an obstructionist than a truth-teller, which is very disconcerting to me," she continues. "I had good and legitimate reasons to ask these questions. They kept saying to me, 'You're asking fine questions.' But nobody ever tried to help me get the answers. It has been the darndest experience anybody ever went through."

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